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If there is one thing Asian can lay claim to as pioneers, it would be the superapp — a single portal on our mobile phones giving us access to a wide range of virtual products and services. 

China’s WeChat inevitably comes to mind when we talk about superapps, and it’s said to inspired Elon Musk’s desire to build something similar, starting with Twitter. 

Elsewhere in Asia, Singapore’s Grab, Indonesia’s Gojek and South Korea’s Kakao are also hard at work, trying to style themselves into a superapp equivalent for their respective markets.

Without a doubt, superapps clearly represent the next frontier in app development. So, what exactly is their appeal? And should we be wary about using them?

The rise of superapps

superapp wechat
WeChat began life as an instant messaging app in China and is often credited as the world’s first superapp / Image Credit: Andrew Harrer via Bloomberg

WeChat is long considered the titan of superapp that helps facilitate life online for millions of Chinese residents, bundling together social media, e-commerce, and digital payments.

However, the reasons behind its runaway success have more to do with the lack of alternatives in China.

In a society where WhatsApp, Twitter and Google are blocked, WeChat was in a unique position to monopolise the market simply by being one of the few communication options available.

While WeChat’s growth into a superapp is partly accidental, its success has paved the way for a demand for superapps elsewhere as consumers and businesses start seeing its value. 

For users, superapps represent unparalleled convenience. Instead of jumping from app to app, the ability to make a restaurant reservation, pay for dinner and hail a ride home with one app inexplicably draws people into using it.

As for businesses hoping to stand out in a crowded landscape of apps, morphing into a superapp is the perfect solution to scale the business and dominate the market.

Why superapps are good for business

Grab clearly saw the superapp as a strategy for growth. Within a decade, it has spread its tentacles and evolved from a ride-hailing app into a conglomerate that offers deliveries, logistics and financial services.

By offering a myriad of services through its app, Grab managed to maintain a grip on our attention and make itself an indispensable part of daily living to over 180 million users.

Grab superapp
Grab’s foray into financial services has solidified its status as a superapp / Image Credit: Edgar Su via Reuters

Meanwhile, Gojek, another superapp that started as a call centre to connect users to ride-share services, has expanded to become one of the most valuable companies in Indonesia.

By leveraging its army of ride-share drivers as mobile bank tellers, Gojek was able to expand its customer base by bringing financial services to areas lacking access to banking infrastructure.

For businesses, the ultimate goal of creating a superapp is simple — to keep customers happy and disincentivise them from interacting with other apps.

And hopefully, unyielding loyalty can be forged once the process of using a particular app becomes a habit.

The dark side of superapps

carousell sg data breach
Data from close to two million Carousell accounts were being sold on the dark web after a data breach / Image Credit: Carousell

Superapps are now a mainstay in our lives. In fact, it would be unheard of to find a phone in Singapore that does not have the Grab app.

However, should we be concerned about giving big tech so much insight and control into our habits?

According to David Shrier, a professor of AI and innovation at Imperial College Business School in London, superapps will know a lot about us, especially our payment habits. And herein lies the problem. 

The disadvantage (with superapps) is we create a market power concentration. Suddenly, these companies are able to decide which goods and services you get to see because it controls the window you look through. And oligopolies tend to raise prices.  

– Professor David Shrier

Besides trapping users within a “content fortress”, revolving one’s life around an app can be problematic. Namely, what happens when the app breaks down? 

When South Korean superapp Kakao had a nationwide outage, chaos ensued as daily life screeched to a halt for millions of users. As a result, Kakao’s CEO was forced to resign, and a class-action lawsuit was brought against the company. 

Lastly, the fact that one single app can access an unprecedented amount of customer data is troubling.

Not only do we have no way of knowing what is being done with our data, but there is also the risk of hackers stealing our information for nefarious activities.

SingtelCarousell and many others have all been hit by data breaches. Even with sophisticated cyber defences, it is only a matter of time before we get hit by another cyberattack. 

What’s the alternative?

Sadly, there is none. Now that superapps are so integrated with our lives, quitting them will result in a cold turkey of convenience. 

As we callously surrender our data and allow big tech firms to exert so much influence on our lives, ignorance is bliss when it comes to using superapps. 

After all, it is only a matter of time before another superapp gets hit by a glitch, resulting in massive upheaval and social suicide. 

Featured Image Credit: CNBC

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)